BY PAUL DAVIS | Providence Journal
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — On a sultry summer night, Tara Devany gobbles a spicy fish taco from Shuckin Truck, a seafood truck that sells fresh oysters from Salt Pond.
The setting — the town beach parking lot — isn’t elegant. But the food is terrific, says Devany, who visits the lot each week to sample thin-crust pizza, lobster rolls and barbecue burritos sold by a half-dozen food trucks.
“The tacos are delicious,” says Devany, a plastic fork tucked above her ear. “And you’re near the ocean. You can’t go wrong.”
Town officials agree. Last summer they invited six food-truck owners to the town beach on Wednesday nights. The trucks were so popular that this year they added another night — Monday.
“We think it’s a great thing,” says Steve Wright, Narragansett director of parks and recreation.
On Monday night, two other communities will consider the food truck trend, but from different viewpoints.
In South Kingstown, officials are considering food trucks at the beach or Marina Park.
In Cranston, officials could vote to remove recent restrictions that ban food trucks from operating within 1,000 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
In Cranston, some council members worry the trucks may steal customers from restaurants that pay property taxes. Food trucks, which pay only permit fees, have an unfair advantage over traditional businesses, they say.
“We hear the complaint a lot,” says Anne-Marie Aigner, executive producer of the Allston, Mass.-based Food Truck Festivals of New England. Aigner says the fears are unfounded.
Food truck events, she says, often draw new visitors to a community — visitors who return after the food trucks are gone.
The trucks don’t have an unfair advantage, she adds. “They pay permit fees and are heavily regulated and go through a maze of local regulations.”
Last month, the Cranston City Council reinstated an old ordinance that prevents food truck vendors from parking within 1,000 feet of a restaurant or within 300 feet of a place of worship just before or after services.
Under the ordinance, food trucks cannot hamper local traffic, “create a public nuisance” or block police, fire and safety vehicles.
The law, sponsored by Councilman Richard D. Santamaria Jr., had been on the books since 1987 but was removed years ago.
Eric Weiner, the owner of FoodTrucksIn.com –– a website that tracks food trucks — says the restrictions are driving truck owners away from the state’s third-largest city.
According to Weiner, there are 50 gourmet food trucks in Rhode Island. Nearly all of them shop at Restaurant Depot in Cranston, and more than a half-dozen trucks are either parked in Cranston or their owners live in the city, he says.
Yet there are only a few licensed trucks in Cranston “because of the difficulty of the process, cost, and restrictions,” says Weiner.
Weiner wants a break on city fees so he can start a weekly food truck night at the family-run Lang’s Bowlarama on Niantic Avenue in Cranston.
“It seems that Cranston makes all types of exceptions or special rules when it is to their benefit, but overall” officials “are making it nearly impossible for food trucks to build business in the city.”
That could change.
Councilman Donald Botts Jr. wants to eliminate the restrictions on food truck owners by amending the new ordinance. Council members will consider it Monday night at City Hall.
Food trucks — essentially restaurants on wheels — have become popular in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., spurred in part by a weak economy, the foodie craze and the proliferation of social media.
The trend is taking off in New England, too, says Aigner at Food Truck Festivals of New England. This year, the Massachusetts company has booked food truck events in Newport, Cambridge, Worcester and elsewhere.
Three years ago, the company worked with fewer than a dozen trucks. That number is now 200, Aigner says.
Some officials may have an outdated view of the business, says Cranston resident Tom Zannini, who owns Championship Melt, a food truck that specializes in grilled cheese and other sandwiches.
“Today’s food trucks are not the traditional, greasy roach coaches” of the past, he says. Many are run by trained chefs. “They are on par — or may offer better food — than some restaurants,” he says.
Zannini says his truck is inspected by the state Board of Health and the fire marshal’s office. He also has a Rhode Island food safety certification.
“I come from a long line of Italian cooks. I learned how to cook from my father, who learned from his father, who learned from his father,” Zannini says.
“There’s this feeling that the food truck business is easy. But we’re small businesses,” says Karen Krinsky, the Warwick operator of Like No Udder, a vegan food and dessert truck. “If someone chooses a certain business model, they shouldn’t be penalized.
Because her truck is a destination for vegan diners, it lures new people to an area, she says.
“If my truck or other trucks increase traffic to Cranston, then Cranston becomes cooler,” she says.